Differences Between the Gnostic and the Canonical Gospels

Orthodox Christians labored in the first few centuries to root out the Gnostics and the taint of Gnosticism as well as other heresies in their sacred scriptures. It was work that did not cease for over 2,000 years as new heresies and challenges arose. The Gnostics now again have a voice through the discovery of their hidden sacred texts found at Nag Hammadi. Interestingly, some of their texts, such as the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Testimony of Truth, and Apocalypse of Peter, decry orthodox Christians as ones who don't know who Christ is, are unknowing and empty, and lead astray those who seek the freedom of gnosis. Both the Gnostics and the orthodox Christians recognized the authority of Jesus and share some common linkage. However, the differences between them and their interpretations of Scripture were often great.

For example, the Gnostic Valentinus separated Jesus (the man) from Christ (the Savior figure). He believed that Christ descended upon Jesus when he was baptized but left before Jesus expired on the cross. Of course, early church father Irenaeus argued against the idea that Jesus and the Christ were separate and of two substances. He did not believe that there was a divine spark in humans to rekindle. There was no self-knowledge that equated with God-knowledge. Valentinus and the conservative leaders in the early Christian church believed in Jesus and his words, but they just interpreted him and his teachings differently.

There is no canonical equivalent to the Gospel of Thomas. The sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are similar to those found in the New Testament Gospels, although some do conflict. The Gospel of Thomas declares that the sayings offer salvation if you correctly understand them. Further, those who do understand them will not “taste death.” This salvation is available through individual effort. Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas, suggests that you need to know yourself at the deepest level, for it is there you get to know God. Early church father Irenaeus stated that in order to approach God, you must come through the church, or there is no salvation. The Gospel of Thomas did not make it into the canon for at least a couple of possible reasons. The canonizers may have thought its content was heretical and possibly believed that the gospel was not authentic.

Early church father Irenaeus provides the first mention of Cerinthus in Against Heresies. Cerinthus was a Gnostic, belonging to the Ebionites. He may have been Egyptian. Although none of his writings survive to today, his doctrines have been described by hostile sources as mixing Judaism, Gnosticism, Ebionitism, and Chiliasm.

The canonical Gospel of John has been the subject of vigorous scholarly debate. Was the author a Gnostic, like Cerinthus, even though the canonical Gospel of John presents anti-Gnostic theology? The Gospel of John is written in a literary style similar to Gnostic writing in its use of opposites (light/dark, death/life, flesh/spirit, etc.). Could orthodox Christian scribes have edited it? Was it based on an earlier Gnostic text that did not survive? Scholars debate these and many other questions about this gospel.

The canonical Gospel of John provides some mystery. The prologue is a beautiful hymn that was undoubtedly adapted and added to open the gospel. More than one author might have worked on this gospel, with one of them writing in a different style of Greek than found in the rest of the text. Scholars noticed the discrepancy in chapter twenty-one. Also, there are two endings to the time Jesus spent discoursing in the Upper Room with his disciples. Chapter 14:31 reads, “But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence.” Chapter 18:1 states, “When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples.”

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